Mark Elder at Royal Academy of Music – Lunchtime concert of Britten, Bax, Sibelius

Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20
In memoriam
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105

Royal Academy Symphony Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 22 February, 2019
Venue: Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London

Although only one titled as such, all three of these works – eloquently programmed together – act as a memorial: Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem dedicated to the memory of his parents; Arnold Bax’s clandestinely to the memory of his Irish friend Patrick Henry Pearse; and Sibelius’s final Symphony – at least from a modern perspective – a memorial to his own compositional career. Brought together, they could easily have been performed in any order to create a satisfying whole, although Mark Elder opted to move from the largest to smallest orchestration; the orchestra shedding players after both the Britten (farewell, saxophone, amongst others) and the Bax to leave the leanest to last. They could have added Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony at the end, to clear the stage completely: a musical law of diminishing returns, as it were…

Sir Mark ElderPhotograph: www.grovesartists.comAs it was, the crashing thunder strokes that open Sinfonia da Requiem could hardly be contained by Duke’s Hall and there was a palpable rawness to the opening ‘Lacrymosa’ as if the music had just been written. If that first movement was chilling (some passages suddenly struck me as being like Shostakovich at his sparsest) the rattle-tat of the ‘Dies irae’ was thrilling, while Elder sculpted the transition into the more conciliatory ‘Requiem aeternam’ with an assured touch, to leave us with some hope for a better world. I was immediately struck by how Britten’s pacifist views are relevant now as they were eighty years ago.

Bax’s In memoriam – which Elder proselytised before conducting it – was composed in the midst of the First World War, though it was a response to the execution of one of the instigators (although not an active participant) of the Easter Rising in Dublin, Pearse, who had become one of Bax’s friends in his ever-growing love for Ireland. The score was never performed (how could it, with its dedication to someone the British regarded as a traitor?), although a chamber work with the title In memoriam 1916 (cor anglais, harp and string quartet) was publishedin 1935, although it is different music. The orchestral piece was first recorded in 1999, by Vernon Handley. It is quintessential Bax, a single arch in three sections, ending in a short (trademark) epilogue. Elder rightly pointed out the special generosity of the main theme of the troubled middle section, but – as ever with Bax – it was the epilogue for me that simply melted my heart. Elder’s young charges played it as if the music was in their blood – with special mention for Timothy Doyle (horn) and Luiz de Campos (oboe).

Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony – again in a single span, though this time in four sections – took us to another soundworld, but the elegiac mood was retained under Elder’s sculpting gestures. Given what had gone before, I seemed to be able to fathom greater connections within the Symphony at this performance. My only wish would have been for the final chord to be held a touch longer (though Elder was scrupulous to the score), so that the music could hang just a little bit more.

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